Faced with large numbers of battlefield casualties arriving en masse, Army doctors needed to quickly determine which cases required immediate attention, which were urgent, and which could wait. This assigning of priorities and resources to one of three broad categories was called triage. From its beginnings in emergency medicine, triage is a useful way of prioritizing large numbers of anything. We can look at any set of actions and decide which need to happen first, which should go next, and which can wait until later. If we were building a house, we would construct the foundation before the walls and the roof. We would install the electrical and plumbing systems before the carpets and drapes.
By definition, strategic imperatives are the essential actions that must be accomplished ahead of all other things. Resources need to be allocated to the most critical activities and everything else needs to be aligned with them.
A marketing executive once presented the department with 27 (!) strategic imperatives. When asked by the managers which were the most important, the executive said they all were. This is, of course, sheer nonsense – everyone knew 27 things could not all be the most important. Unwilling or unable to establish priorities and assign resources, the executive had abdicated responsibility, figuratively tossing everything on the table and saying ‘have at it.’ It was the organizational equivalent of musical chairs. Grandma would have said they were running around like chickens with their heads cut off, and she would have been right. With so many “most important” things, everyone had to work on several at once and the result was no one was able to devote their full attention or effort to anything.
Of course, trying to align and coordinate this many things was impossible.
Without definition from the leader, disagreements occurred and the staff ended up working at cross-purposes instead of cooperating. As you might imagine, this rudderless strategy caused a great deal of confusion, frustration, and waste.
No one has unlimited resources.
When it comes to finite amounts of time, people, and money, executives need to determine which activities are critical, which are important, and which are worth exploring, and allocate their resources accordingly. We sometimes ask study sponsors to divide activities into immediate, soon, and later.